Yeezus, Kanye West’s follow-up to 2010’s critically adored My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is—to borrow a phrase—a difficult album. It’s an alienating first listen, lacking anything resembling his earlier hits. There’s no “All of the Lights” on Yeezus, to say nothing of “Touch the Sky” or “Slow Jamz”. Each of Kanye’s previous albums departed significantly from that which came before: Late Registration added lush orchestration to The College Dropout’s soul sampling; Graduation combined the two into a joyous grandiosity; and 808’s and Heartbreak drowned it all in self-pity and synths, before My Beautiful Dark Twist Fantasy perfected Graduation’s grandiosity in a stunningly self-loathing pop package. Yeezus shares a core DNA with 808s; Kanye caters only to himself on each record and—like 808s—Yeezus’s influence and critical acceptance will only grow over time. Nonetheless, a bruised and angry core thrums at the heart of this album. The production owes much to Chicago drill, acid house, and 90’s industrial. The producer who joyously sampled the Jackson 5 for Jay-Z’s “Izzo” is unrecognizable.
“Soon as they like you/make ‘em unlike you” Kanye raps on “I Am A God”. Yeezus follows through on that promise. Coarse, harsh beats fill the album. Legendary producer Rick Rubin (who wryly claims he reduces, not produces, albums) was summoned to strip off the excess. Flat, nihilistic guest verses from Chief Keef and King L are the only rap features. Justin Vernon flits around the edges, haunting the margins of the album with eerie refrains. And Kanye’s lyrics reflect the minimalist paranoia of his production: full of anger at structural racism and sexually aggressive—certainly misogynistic—rhymes, it’s not a fun listen. Album opener “On Sight” reflects the Yeezus transition best. The pulsating beat is like nothing Kanye has ever produced. It cuts out for a short soul sample from a children’s choir (He’ll give us what we need/it may not be what we want”) before the reverie breaks and the beat assaults the ears again. MBDTF was what we wanted. And Yeezus, in Kanye’s view, is what we need.
Many in the hip-hop media predicted Yeezus would be Kanye’s political protest album. These predictions came on the backs of two songs: “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves”, each released before the album. Kanye’s unveiling of “New Slaves” came in what seemed like a PR stroke of genius; he projected his face on buildings around the world, only reinforcing the relentless tirade in the song. Nevermind that big brother Jay-Z (do I have to call him Jay Z, now?) one-upped him with a perfectly-timed NBA finals commercial. Jay-Z accurately calls himself a business; Kanye has the audacity to call himself a God. Kanye’s all-black outfit and angry delivery of “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” seemed to confirm speculation a political tirade was on the way. Then Yeezus dropped and the critics relearned an important lesson: Kanye West hates being put into a box.
The second half of Yeezus defies all expectation. Kanye drunk drives to see an ex, mangles her Corolla, and fucks her on album highlight “Hold My Liquor”. Kanye’s equivocation of sex and possession in the song is revolting, but the woozy beat is too seductive to ignore. ““I’m In It” is initially a jarring listen, but it becomes better over time. The woman’s moans, the overwhelming bass, Justin Vernon crooning “star fucker” repeatedly: irrestible. The now-infamous Asian pussy and sweet-and-sour sauce line and “put my fist in her like a civil rights sign” both rankle. Both lines seem like lazy misogyny. “Blood On the Leaves” repurposes perhaps the defining racial protest song of the century into a rant about paying alimony. The beat is an all-out assault—I’ll never forget my brother and I’s surprise and elation when it drops around the 1:10 mark—but the context doesn’t quite fit. It almost feels like an intentional slight of the iconic song. It’s not purely the misogyny or (intentional) ignorance that rankles. Cumming on a Hampton blouse, after all, is an equally loaded image as fisting someone. At least that, though, has an obvious political point; the previous laziness does not. Maybe this is the point where I also say the second half of the album is my favorite. And I’m not sure why.
A recent Spin article questioned whether Yeezus was the tipping point for misogyny in rap music. Rather than the “statement-making, punk-infused noise-rap record” many predicted, Spin lambasted that album as a “relentless spleen-vent against the women in his life.” The profile went on to connect Kanye’s “wounded bro rage” to the drug-infused, moral dilemmas of the Weeknd and Drake’s self-pitying drunk dials. Much of the gist of the article is true, although I’m skeptical of any trend piece that basically just connects random anecdotes from a pretty disparate genre. Regardless, the navel-gazing and sensitivity that separates Drake and Kanye (and, to a certain extent, the Weeknd) from their peers does not excuse their reliance on the lame rap tropes that made “Gold Digger” a hit. Yeezus’ misogyny isn’t purely informed by insecurity and whines about fame, as was Drake’s Take Care. Donda West’s son knows better, but doesn’t want us to know it.
In a New York Times Interview, Kanye pointedly told Jon Caramanica that “I slipped past everything with a pink polo, but I am Dead Prez. And now, because I was able to slip past, I have a responsibility at all times.” Kanye cannot possibly believe he is Dead Prez; after all, he did brag about his Benz—and his other Benz. The duo’s political leanings are decidedly to the left of Kanye’s. The two are essentially anarcho-socialists. They would never create their own luxury line of jeans. Kanye’s absolute refesual to censor himself, though, represents a clear connection between the erstwhile revolutionaries and the conflicted superstar. The anti-materialism of “All Falls Down” plays like a soulful “New Slaves”; his Taylor Swift outburst a more poorly planned version of “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” The common thread—and the link to Dead Prez—is that for Kanye, politics always matter. The George Bush line speaks for itself. Taylor’s win over Beyonce was, for Kanye, an insult to pop’s Queen at her absolute best. A pretty blond girl from the South steals what was rightfully Beyonce’s; 60 years of American racial history, personified. While his tact leaves something to be desired, his brashness impresses. Watch the video: you won’t notice Jay-Z looking upset. Compared to Jay, Kanye really does look like Dead Prez.
The angry, throbbing, and dark core of this album defined my summer. I listened to it on the subway to and from work; and it haunted all my nights, creating a soundtrack for 3AM discussions of America’s addiction to guns and Obama’s seemingly ceaseless political quagmire. Yeezus felt like panic, it felt like catharsis. “When a real nigga hold you down, you ‘sposed to drown” raps Kanye on Yeezus’s uplift finale, “Bound 2”. Kanye’s tirades against the prison-industrial complex, corporate greed, and “Hampton spouses” felt enormously timely this summer, as Sasha Frere-Jones argues in a thoughtful New Yorker piece. The political side of Yeezus makes Kanye eminently more likable, in my book. But it’s the other side—where he cums on Hampton blouses, drops shoddy lines about Asian pussies, and pops a wheelie on the musical zeitgeist on the often-literal orgasm that is the second half of the album—that fascinates me. I could do without the misogyny. As far as I can tell, though, Kanye West only really hates himself. And if the result of that self-loathing is the sonically unparalleled, politically daring, offensive, and at times disgusting piece of art that is Yeezus, sign me up. I’ll look at that again. Maybe we’re supposed to drown.